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MX politics

IN dribs and drabs, another White House is dragging Congress along toward limited deployment of the MX missile. Tuesday's vote in the House of Representatives, approving production of another 21 MXs, was so close (219 to 213) that the next installment -- 48 more MXs in the President's fiscal 1986 budget -- appears in clear trouble. A likely compromise will be to cut back the next request by more than half. The arguments on both sides will likely be the same: The MX is needed to update US offensive missiles, as a bargaining chip in the Geneva negotiations, and to show United States resolve; the MX is vulnerable, costly, potentially inviting a Soviet first strike, and forgoing it could prove an earnest of good intentions at Geneva.

But many congressmen, after extraordinary lobbying by the administration, feel they've gone their extra mile for the MX. The budget request, with Congress anxious to whittle back the administration's defense budget request, offers the opportunity to vote against the system on other grounds -- fighting the deficit and exercising equity in spending restraint.

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If the Geneva talks seem to be leading somewhere, and chief negotiator Max Kampelman is returned to lobby for the missile as integral to the US negotiating position -- though, correctly, he has indicated he would not care to leave his Geneva duties for such an exercise again -- it is hard to argue flatly that the administration will be unable to string out the program through another round.

Assuming that a second House vote on the issue this week endorses the first, we continue to think the MX could have been defeated without doing harm to the US negotiating position in Geneva. The MX has failed to inspire credibility as a weapons system. As the Soviets are seen deploying their own new mobile system, one cannot help but recall Jimmy Carter's failed attempt to promote a movable MX. Ronald Reagan did not even try to sell a mobile MX, but took over the hardened-silo approach, which is technically inferior. If the MX is not credible as a weapon, how is it credible as a bargaining chip?

Still, the outcome of the MX vote has some positive sides for almost everyone but those who saw it simply as money down the silo.

For the administration, it was a significant political victory. It showed a White House able to muster great energy and skill toward a goal. This is an administration that does not play an indifferent hand.

For Washington generally, the political combat on the MX showed a legislative system that worked well. The President was able to get approval of a program he dearly wanted. The members of Congress argued and deliberated seriously. Whatever one thinks of the outcome, it offered little comfort to cynics who assume Washington prefers to skirt the big issues.

The Democrats, politically speaking, were probably better off to have lost. The new, younger leadership was split, as is the party itself, on the basic arguments. Rep. Les Aspin of Wisconsin, the new chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, incurred the wrath of some colleagues by forging an alliance with the White House to keep the MX alive, but Mr. Aspin may have strengthened the committee for dealing with the Pentagon and the administration over time. Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri, new chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, may have come up short on the MX but showed himself no less formidable a legislator for that. These new Democratic leaders are no slouches.

The Democrats have been hurting among Americans, especially in the South and West, who want a more forceful and less apologetic US presence abroad. Implicit in the checks and balances system is an American notion that a good tough contest can be healthy, but where the outcome is close they would tilt the benefit of the doubt to the White House, responsible for executive action. The outcome helps the Democrats on both scores. They certainly would not have wanted to be blamed for any failure at Geneva because they had tied the President's hand on the MX.

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If Americans can see that there was a little for everyone politically in the MX outcome, so can the Soviets. The MX battle showed the Soviets they certainly are not dealing with an adversary asleep on the job.

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